Fran Alexander has an enviable talent for taking the terror out of taxonomy. Her pre-dinner talk made LIKE 11 (our first anniversary meeting) a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening event.
She began by explaining that people have been organising ideas and making lists forthousands of years.By the time of classical Greece, taxonomies were familiar things, developed from lists as a way of representing knowledge.
And people have been predicting the death of taxonomy for almost as long. It hasn’t happened yet, as our minds tend to like things to be organised – they understand order and narrower relationships. The notion of zooming in on something you want is familiar and instinctive.
Even though we have a world of Google and free-text search, classification is still really useful. Fran said she often gets asked, and wakes up at 3 in the morning thinking, “why don’t we just bung Google on the lot and forget it”. But there are some very good reasons not to.
For one thing, free-text search fails to help with knowledge discovery. It’s great if you know what you’re looking for, but not great if you’re not sure and you want to understand what’s known in a field. You can wander about following links, but won’t get a sense of the field. You’ll get random pathways that can be very interesting, but won’t end up building a body of knowledge and an overview of a set of subject matter.
Anyone who’s wasted an afternoon following random links and not answering the question they were trying to answer will understand that. You tend to miss obscure, but important, unexpected, non-commercial things.
Other problems include disambiguation, misspelling etc. Google has phenomenal synonym control and thesauruses underpinning its searches, but they can’t help in smaller domains where you don’t have everyone in the world doing searches to process those results. And that ties in with the notion of ‘about-ness’. When you’re doing a search and looking for specific words – you won’t necessarily find things that are about that topic, but don’t use those specific words. It’s the same case with audio- visual assets – you need to get a sense of what the asset’s about, and all sorts of metadata might not capture that. So you need some classification to help you.
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